It was no cakewalk, but the No. 24 Princeton women’s basketball team (23–4, 14–0 Ivy) has advanced to the Ivy League Tournament Final.
In a game that saw Princeton seemingly pulling away at various points during the second half, the result ultimately came down to the wire, with the Tigers knocking down a few clutch free throws to defeat Harvard (13–14, 7–7 Ivy) by a score of 72–67 at Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge, Mass. on Friday night.
The game was the second in five days between the two teams, as Princeton defeated Harvard in the same arena just four days earlier in their Ivy League regular season finale by a score of 73–53. The Tigers also defeated the Crimson 68–50 earlier in the season at Jadwin Gymnasium.
Despite the large margin of victory for the Tigers in the previous two matchups, the semifinal matchup with Harvard was bound to be more competitive. With Harvard hosting this year’s Ivy Madness, the Tigers would have to play in the Crimson’s home gym. Harvard would also have the chance to make adjustments, with the result of their game plan from the previous weekend fresh in their mind.
The game also carried extra emotional weight for Harvard, as it was potentially the final game for legendary Head Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, who had coached the program since 1982. In her 40 seasons, she has coached Harvard to over 600 victories in just over 1,000 games, making her the winningest coach in Ivy League history.
“I wanted them to play for the team themselves,” Delaney-Smith told reporters after the game. “I mean, I tell them not to play for me, but I was emotional, quite honestly.”
Despite these advantages for Harvard, it was not unreasonable to expect the Tigers to have little trouble handling the Crimson. The Tigers had won 40 straight conference games entering Friday night’s matchup, the longest active conference winning streak of any men’s or women’s Division I program. Head Coach Carla Berube was 28–0 in Ivy play entering the game, and the Tigers had not won an Ivy League game by fewer than 12 points this season. The Tigers entered eighth in the country in average margin (+18.3 points), and had also won 15 of their last 16 matchups against the Crimson, including the last six games between the two teams. Delaney-Smith even remarked that this was the best Princeton team she’d faced during her entire four-decade career.
Of course, winning is never easy in college basketball during the month of March.
“I think a lot of people were thinking that Princeton was going to win this, but I knew Harvard was […] going to play their tails off,” Berube said during the press conference after the game.
Coming into the game, Princeton led the Ivy League in team three-point percentage. Harvard led the Ivy League in team three-pointers made, and was 10th in the category in Division I. The game began exactly as one might expect, then, with Harvard guard and Ivy League Rookie of the Year Harmoni Turner hitting a step-back three from the top of the key, scoring the first basket of the Ivy League tournament in style.
At the end of the first quarter, Princeton led 19–13, in large part due to sophomore forward Ellie Mitchell’s presence inside. Mitchell, who was the Ivy League’s regular-season leading rebounder (10.1 boards per game) collected eight rebounds in just the first 10 minutes, finishing with 11 points and 16 rebounds, her second double-double in four days against the Crimson. It was Mitchell’s sixth double-double of the season.
“Harvard is a little undersized,” Berube said. “[Mitchell] kind of feels like she’s a big post player [against them].”
“She must have been on the floor 20 times,” Berube added. “Even when she’s 10 feet away, she’s still diving, trying to get the basketball.”
The Princeton lead was short-lived, however, as Harvard came into the second quarter with newfound energy. Guard Lola Mullaney, one of five Harvard players with a top-25 scoring average in the Ivy League at 12.6 points per game, led the way, hitting back-to-back jumpers to open the frame.
This momentum gave way to Harvard’s biggest offensive run of the game. They ultimately took control by a score of 32–25 after a difficult step-back three by guard McKenzie Forbes, who entered the game eighth in the Ivy League in scoring at 13.8 points per game. She would finish with 22.
From there, Princeton went on a run of their own. Junior guard and All-Ivy Honorable Mention Grace Stone’s three-pointer with two minutes left in the half reclaimed the lead for the Tigers, at 33–32. With the clock winding down, and the floor to herself, sophomore guard Kaitlyn Chen hit a pull-up jumper that gave Princeton a 35–32 lead heading into the locker rooms. Chen would finish with 18 points, while Stone would have seven.
Despite having the lead at the half, things were not going as well for the Tigers as they had hoped in the opening two quarters. The team was shooting just 30 percent from three-point range, and had turned the ball over seven times. The team was also on pace to allow significantly more than their scoring average of 50 points per game, which was good for third in Division I entering the contest. Despite having held the Crimson at or near that average in the previous two meetings, the strength of the Harvard offense Friday night was no surprise, as the Crimson had led the Ivy League in scoring offense this season with 71.1 points per game.
In the second half, the Tigers were not able to shore things up defensively, but they continued to take advantage of a weak Harvard defense that was second–worst in scoring defense entering the game.
The 8–0 run the Tigers took into the half was expanded to 15–0 thanks to more strong play from senior guard, captain, and unanimous Ivy League Player of the Year Abby Meyers, who led the Tigers with 10 points in the first half and added five more to start the third quarter. Turner stopped the Princeton run a few minutes into the quarter, but by then the damage had been done. The Tigers led by 11 towards the end of the quarter, although a three-pointer from Harvard guard Maggie McCarthy cut the lead to 52–44 before the buzzer sounded on the third frame.
To open the final quarter, Harvard cut the lead down to five thanks to another deep three-pointer from Turner, who finished with 19 points. In the very next possession, Forbes took the defensive rebound and ran coast-to-coast all by herself, making a strong move inside for an and-one layup. After hitting the free throw, the lead was cut down to two. Princeton led 52–50 with nine minutes remaining.
The two teams remained neck-and-neck for the next few minutes, until Chen hit a skillful floater in the lane. She managed to absorb the contact and convert the and-one at the free-throw line to kickstart another Princeton run. The Tigers would go on to extend their lead to eight after a three-pointer from Meyers. With just three minutes to go, Harvard trailed 66–58.
And then, in typical March basketball fashion, the underdogs refused to go away.
A string of stops on defense allowed the Crimson to claw their way back. Harvard guard Annie Strizel found herself wide open on a backdoor cut, dropping in an easy two to shrink the Tigers lead to 66–64.
In crunch time, Princeton knew that their opponent may look to intentionally foul. The Tigers were ready, putting the ball in the hands of one of the team’s best free-throw shooters, Kaitlyn Chen, who shot 82 percent from the line entering the game. Chen smoothly knocked down a pair at the charity stripe to push the lead to 68–64 with only 45 seconds remaining.
With no time to waste, Harvard ran an offensive set that gave Lola Mullaney just enough daylight to launch a bomb from behind the three-point line. That bucket reduced Princeton’s lead to just 68–67 with 34 seconds on the clock.
Calm, cool, and collected, Chen once again stepped up to the free-throw line and nailed a pair to make it a three-point game.
“Kaitlyn [Chen] just came up huge, stretching the lead,” Berube said. “It’s tough for a younger player like that, but I think that with the confidence her teammates have in her, she’s ready for these kinds of moments.”
With 15 seconds on the clock, Harvard had the chance to make a play. Forbes caught the ball on the wing, sizing up her defender, and with the team’s season on the line, put up a three that could have sent the game into overtime.
The ball missed wide left. Grace Stone was fouled after grabbing the rebound, and her ensuing two free-throws put the game away for good. Despite being tested more than they had been previously in conference play this year, the Tigers had prevailed. It was the first time this season that a Princeton Ivy League game resulted in anything other than a double-digit Tigers win.
“The past 10-plus games, we haven’t had a game like that,” Meyers said. “Credit to Coach [Berube] and the coaching staff for getting us prepared.”
Statistical leaders for the Tigers included Meyers, who poured in 22 points and grabbed seven rebounds, beating her season averages in both categories. Additionally, Meyers shot 50 percent from the field and 40 percent on three-point attempts, just short of her Ivy-leading mark of 40.9 percent. It was her 11th time this season scoring 20 points or more, and her 28th consecutive game scoring in double figures.
Joining Meyers in double figures for the Tigers were Mitchell (11 points, 16 rebounds, 3 steals), Chen (18 points), and junior guard Julia Cunningham (12 points, four assists). All but Cunningham (13.5 points per game) also beat their season scoring averages in the game, all of which had ranked in the top-20 in the Ivy League entering the contest.
Chen was impressive in particular, despite her six turnovers. Over the past four games, the sophomore had averaged 16 points per game, a significant improvement over her season average of around nine points. Her performances in recent weeks have earned her Ivy League Rookie of the Week three times in a row.
Chen and company will look to continue these stellar performances Saturday night against Columbia (22–5, 12–2), who advanced to the final by thrashing Yale (16–11, 9–5) by a score of 67–38. The Tigers and Lions met twice during the regular season, with Princeton winning both matchups by more than 15 points, including a 73–53 victory in New York in which Chen scored a career-high 27 points.
“We’re not done,” Columbia Head Coach Megan Griffith said after the victory over Yale in the semifinal. “We’ve got unfinished business and we’re ready to go tomorrow.”
Should the Tigers emerge victorious Saturday night, they will be given an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Should they lose, they risk missing out on the tournament, although their spot as the No. 24 team in the AP Poll and No. 21 spot in the NET rankings would give them a decent shot at qualifying as an at-large team.
Despite their high rankings though, Berube and her team don’t want to leave anything up to chance.
“Everyone wants to be playing their best basketball this time of year, and we need to be ready for that,” Berube said. “[Our team] is going to feel like they can put together a better 40 minutes tomorrow night [against Columbia].”
Matt Drapkin is a staff writer for the ‘Prince’ sports section. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @mattdrapkin.
Wilson Conn is a co-head editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince’ who typically covers football, basketball, and breaking news. He is also a senior writer for the Podcast section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @wilson_conn.